UEFA Champions League Knockout Round

I realize that I am a little late with this since two of the eight knockout round series played their first game on Tuesday, but right now is the sweet spot for Champions League play, so I say better late than never! Based on the popularity of Sunday’s piece titled “The Latest Failure of US Soccer,” it’s possible that explaining the format of Champions League is a waste of time for the SportsIntel following. However, just in case “the beautiful game” isn’t your cup of tea, let me walk you through it.

What is UEFA?

The Union of European Football Associations is the governing body for European soccer and one of FIFA’s six confederations. UEFA governs both national team play (ie England vs Germany) and club play (ie Manchester United vs Real Madrid). In case you aren’t aware, FIFA is a French acronym (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) which translates to International Federation of Football Associations, but it can be thought of quite simply as the world’s governing body for organized soccer.

Why is this competition called Champions League?

It’s gone by a few names over the years, but in 1992 it was rebranded as UEFA Champions League (UCL) and that’s how we know it today. The name, as it suggests, takes the top clubs from all of Europe’s leagues and puts them into a season-long tournament to determine Europe’s top club each year. Not EVERY team in the tournament won their league, but every team that wins their league gets a crack at the UCL in the season following their triumph. Each country gets a specific number of spots in the field based on the strength of its domestic league (ie England, Germany, and Spain get to put more teams in the field than Azerbaijan, Cyprus, and Austria). More specifically . . . .

How many teams make the field?

This is where it gets a little complicated, but basically 78 or 79 teams make it each year. According to the UEFA website (which does a great job of organization all this information):

A country’s representation in the UEFA Champions League is determined by its UEFA coefficient ranking at the start of the previous season, which is calculated over a five-year basis. Twenty-two teams automatically enter this season’s competition in the group stage (including Manchester United as UEFA Europa League winners), with a further 57 teams taking part in qualifying.

Over the course of the year the grouping of 79 teams is whittled down to 16 via pool play. Pools are formed through a system that includes seeding as well as a lottery and attempts to keep things as fair as possible. As mentioned above, 22 teams get a “bye” through to the group stage while the lower tier clubs have to win their way into the group stage.

Where does the tournament go from here?

Now that the field has been trimmed from 79 last summer to 16 here in mid-February, we start with the knockout round which is exactly what it sounds like. From here on out, instead of playing a round robin within a pool of teams, clubs must advance by beating the opponent in front of them. The teams in the round of 16 got their matchups by way of a drawing and, as we’ll see shortly, it becomes harder and harder to keep it fair and equitable. Some teams just have a harder path to the final from here.

A key concept here is the two-leg format which determines the winner of each match up in the rounds of 16, 8, and 4. There are two matches between knockout round opponents; one at each team’s home. American sports fans may be asking themselves, “How do you settle anything by playing an even number of matches? I’m used to best-of-seven.” The simplest answer is: whichever team scores more combined goals in the two matches is the one that advances. There is a system of tie-breakers for this that gets a little more complex, but a goal scored on the road carries more weight than a goal scored at home and playing overtime in the second leg match is a possibility if that’s what it takes to establish a winner.

What’s the deal with the final?

Once we’ve gone through the knockout rounds and we’re down to two teams, the competition transitions to a winner-take-all final match at a predetermined site, kinda like the Super Bowl. The 2018 edition will take place at the NSC Olimpiyskiy Stadium in Kyiv, Ukraine on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend in the United States. Unlike the Super Bowl, kickoff will be at a totally reasonable time; 2:45pm EST. If you’ve never watched the UCL Final, I am telling you right now to give it serious consideration. Find a local pub and go soak in what many people call “The World’s Super Bowl.” In fact, if you’re in the DC area, come on over to my house and watch it with me!

Who are the remaining teams?

Back to the present. Let’s take a peek at the teams still alive in this year’s competition:

Matches for February 13 and March 7

FC Basel (Switzerland) versus Manchester City FC (England): City won 4-0 in Basel on Tuesday so you can probably pencil them in for the round of 8. That’s a huge deficit to make up—especially on the road—and don’t forget the thing I told you about away goals being more valuable.

Juventus FC (Turin, Italy) versus Tottenham Hotspur FC (London, England): The two played a 2-2 draw on Tuesday in Italy, which means that Tottenham got 2 away goals and is in the superior position for advancement to the round of 8. By way of example, a 0-0 or 1-1 draw at home gets Tottenham through to the next round because they would have more road goals despite not winning either match. However if Juventus can win in London, they would advance because they would have more goals on aggregate.

Matches for February 14 and March 6

Real Madrid CF (Spain) versus Paris Saint-Germain FC (France): Madrid and PSG are two of the biggest money clubs in the entire sport so this is a very tough draw for both teams. Madrid has won the last two UCL trophies, but PSG just spent a boatload of money to get Neymar from Barca.

FC Porto (Portugal) versus Liverpool FC (England): Liverpool is owned by the Fenway Sports Group so don’t cheer for them or you’re supporting the Boston RedSox.

Matches for February 20 and March 14

FC Bayern Munich (Germany) versus Beşiktaş JK (Istanbul, Turkey): The Bavarians are my favorite football club in the world and last won this tournament in 2013.

Chelsea FC (London, England) versus FC Barcelona (Spain): Another high-powered match up, Chelsea are the current champions of the English League (widely considered the top league in the world) and Barcelona are the last team not named Real Madrid to hoist the UCL jug.

Matches for February 21 and March 13

FC Shakhtar Donets’k (Donets’k, Ukraine) versus AS Roma (Italy): Shakhtar is the first European club I ever called my own, back when I lived in Donets’k as a 20 year old. Now they have to play their “home” matches on the road because their city has become a war zone. I’ll be cheering heartily for the underdog Miners.

Sevilla FC (Spain) versus Manchester United FC (England): England has 5 teams in the last last 16 while Spain has 3. It was mentioned above that United won the UEFA Europa League last year. That competition is one step down from Champions League, but winning it is a serious honor.

Who is the favorite and who should I cheer for?

Currently the bookmakers have the top five teams as 1- Man City, 2- PSG, 3- Munich, 4- Barca, 5- Madrid, but English clubs haven’t fared very well in the late stages of this tournament recently and it’s tough to bet against Madrid as two time defending champs. If you want an underdog, Basel is paying 4500-1 after that loss to City yesterday. If you want to see an iconic player finally win the UCL in his last chance, Gigi Buffon and Juventus are the team for you. With Neymar leaving Barca for PSG, I kinda feel like the French club might be the best bet if they can get past Madrid, but ask me again in early May.

Hit us up if you have questions!